Checking the health of adult learning research

I’ve just spent an enjoyable and stimulating day at the 2017 SCUTREA conference.  The acronym represents a rather unwieldy title, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and it is best understood as the main UK gathering for researchers in adult learning.

For many years SCUTREA drew its audience from academics working in specialist adult education departments. There are fewer of these than in the past, but SCUTREA has held up rather well, and it coninues to be a lively, congenial and stimulating event. What does this tell us about the state of our field?

First, it continues to attract a decent level of participation. Eightynine people registered for this year’s event, which is about the same level as for other SCUTREA conferences in recent years, and the sessions I attended provoked a healthy level of debate. Almost all the participants also offered papers, many looking at adult learning through perspectives influenced by postcolonialism, intersectionality, and queer theory.

Just by way of contrast, I pulled out a copy of the SCUTREA papers from 1982, when there were 11 presentations and 61 delegates, plus 5 ‘observers’ (I wonder whether the observers were allowed to speak). You can see from the titles that the contents were largely empirical with a focus on practice.

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SCUTREA has always attracted overseas researchers, and I was interested to see that this year they outnumbered the 39 UK delegates. Though I haven’t checked, I don’t remember this happening in previous years. What was more familiar was the source of the overseas participants: most came from Anglophone nations, with 14 from Canada, 12 from the USA, 4 from Ireland and 2 from Australia. Only 11 came from continental Europe, with the largest contingents coming from Sweden (4) and Germany (3).

The UK delegates came from 18 different HEIs and one residential college. The largest group from any one institution came from Huddersfield, whose Centre for Research in Education and Society is clearly thriving. In 1982, the largest contingent (7) were from Nottingham. My sense is that the centre of gravity in our field is shifting toward the post-92 HEIs, whose role in further education teacher education gives them a critical mass of academics.

I’ve taken SCUTREA conferences before as a health check for research in our field; so what can we conclude from the 2017 event? I think my own conclusions are firstly that adult learning continues to provide an important focus for research, and that SCUTREA continues to provide asignificant forum for parts of that research. I also think that SCUTREA has a job on its hands to attract a larger share of the UK research community in our field. Taking the long view, though, it is clearly doing fine!

Adult learning and the election (5): the Democratic Unionist Party

Judging by my Twitter feed, everyone in Britain is suddenly an expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May’s decision to invite the DUP to support a minority Conservative government has got everyone interested in Northern Ireland politics – or at least in finding out enough to pour scorn on May’s new partners. But beyond the parody and fluff of social media, what does the DUP stand for?

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I’m going to focus on one area and one area only: its policies for adult learning. I know all about the DUP’s social conservatism, its links with the Orange Order, and its support for Brexit. None of these concerns me in this post.

The DUP manifesto outlines plans for what it calls ‘An Industrial Renaissance for Northern Ireland’, which includes an industrial strategy aligned to the wider UK strategy.  One of the five core pillars of the DUP industrial strategy is given as ‘Enhancing Educattion, Skills and Employability’. This section of the manifesto offers quite a lot of detail about growth of tourism (unlikely to be a high skills sector) and maximising trade exports.

On skills, the manifesto outlines continued funding for the Assured Skills and Future Skills programmes, continuity for the apprenticeship system, a focus on digital skills in further and higher education, a closer alignment of degree courses with ‘the strong and emerging sectors of our economy’, and ‘increased involvement of industry in shaping the skills agenda’. What the latter means is unclear, but otherwise the focus is largely on tweaking existing activities.

The manifesto also includes the DUP’s proposals for education, but these are almost entirely concerned with schools and teaching. The most controversial is likely to be the  ‘removal of discrimination in teacher employment’, or in other words reshaping recruitment policy in Catholic schools. There is nothing more about adult learning, which is unsurprising given than the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has worked hard to dismantle the public adult education system.

Then the manifesto sets out 30 DUP demands for the Brexit settlement. These include a relaxed border with the Irish Republic, a renewed system of agricultural subsidies, and a ‘successful, outward-looking, knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland’.

There are also three proposals for continued partnerships with the EU that are relevant to further and higher education:

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It is pretty obvious that the first of these is vague in the extreme; the second is vague and qualified; and the only example offered of the third is participation in the EC research programmes, which are almost certain to be uncontroversial in the final Brexit settlement. Oddly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, there appears to be no mention of the EU Structural Funds.

So Conservative ministers are unlikely to find themselves inspired by the DUP’s radical thinking on adult learning. On the other hand, the DUP are highly unlikely to find anything objectionable in the Conservative plans for adult learning, of which I take a reasonably positive view.

 

Adult learning and the election (4): a cheap and dirty poll

In the last fortnight I’ve posted my summary analyses of the three main parties’ plans for adult learning. All three have had plenty to say, so for election day I’ve had a quick look at how many people took a look at each.

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My chart shows the share of total readership for each party. Dear readers, you placed Labour ahead of the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats coming a clear third.  What do I read into this outcome? Not a lot, but I do find it mildly interesting.

In particular, I think you’ve been a bit tough on the Lib Dems, whose manifesto had some really interesting ideas about adult learning, including some positive proposals for family learning. I suspect the Lib Dems’ fate is to have good ideas without most people paying much attention.  But given the near certainty of a Conservative victory today, wouldn’t you expect them to have topped the list?

Adult learning and the UK election: (2) the Labour Party

At the time of writing, the Labour Party looks set to come second in the election. If so, it will form the main opposition to the government, where its thinking on lifelong learning will inevitably have an impact on public debate, and will continue to develop in opposition. And Labour is still a major force in local and regional government, as well as forming the largest single party in Wales. So its ideas on lifelong learning matter.

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I’ve already summarised and criticised the Conservatives’ ideas on adult learning in a previous post. I’ll turn my attention to the Liberal Democrats and Greens in the next few days; UKIP can safely be ignored, as its manifesto says nothing about post-school education other than to call for lower student numbers in higher education and to propose a German-style (ironically) of dual system for apprentice training.

Like the Conservatives, Labour is using the manifesto to set out its broad industrial strategy. Labour’s manifesto says little directly about the role of skills in industrial strategy, other than proposing that public sector procurement should be used to leverage high employment standards, including providing training. Rightly, in my view, their industrial strategy focuses on growing the number of high value jobs, and thus increasing the demand for skills.

Skills supply is dealt with mainly in the context of Labour’s proposals for a National Education Service. What exactly is ‘National’ about it is unclear; Labour evidently intends not to remove education from the devolved administrations, but the manifesto underplays the fact that this would be a ‘National (English) Education Service’.

While this Service will somehow be ‘unified’, the manifesto does not suggest abolishing university autonomy or reducing the role of local government, and it does suggest devolving skills budgets to city regions, so at the moment it is completely unclear to me how and in what sense this will be a ‘National’ service, comparable to the NHS.

Labour’s plans for an NES have huge financial implications: the Service, it says, will ‘move towards cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use’, incorporating ‘all forms of education, from early years through to adult education’. I guess (because it isn’t stated) that Labour believe or hope that higher skills will produce higher growth and thus raise the tax take.

Over two pages are devoted to a chapter on Skills. On further education, the manifesto calls for an end to constant structural change in the sector, and proposes investing in the sector through such measures as rebalancing the funding allocations between colleges and schools sixth forms, restoring Educational Maintenance Allowances, replacing tuition fees with a direct grant, and requiring all FE teaching staff to have a teaching qualification. It also proposes to restore cuts to UnionLearn, and to establish a Commission on Lifelong Learning tasked with integrating further and higher education.

On the whole this sounds like an attractive package, but there are several unanswered questions. Leaving aside the lack of clarity over the cost of these proposals, it is unclear who might be covered by the requirement to have a teaching qualification (what about part-time staff, for example?), and the rather general idea of ‘integrating further and higher education’ could mean anything from encouragement for local collaborative arrangements through to a fully-fledged tertiary system.

Most of the proposals for apprenticeships seem eminently sensible, and indeed are not a million miles away from Conservative thinking. Shifting the emphasis from recruitment targets to achievement at Level 3 is consistent with the aim of a high skills workforce. The idea of targets for ‘people with disabilities, care-leavers and veterans’ is worthwhile, though they will raise concerns about box-ticking and bureaucracy. And some will explode with fury over the very idea of incentives for large employers to over-train numbers of apprentices to fill skills gaps in the supply chain and the wider sector.

So far as higher education specifically is concerned, the manifesto limits itself to proposing free tuition and the reintroduction of maintenance grants. While this may be electorally popular, particularly among the better educated young voters, free tuition in particularly is highly socially regressive, especially as in England fees are not paid up front, and their repayment is means-tested. Nor is it clear how these measures will apply to part-time and distance students.

As the Learning and Work Institute rightly points out, the absence of any discussion of work insertion programmes for unemployed people is a massive gap, even allowing for the manifesto’s emphasis on the creation of good work: strikingly, neither the word ‘unemployed’ or ‘unemployment’ appear even once.

Nevertheless, this manifesto suggests that someone in Labour’s inner circles has been thinking hard about further education and adult learning. As the Party is likely to spend at least another five years in opposition, there is much to build on in a manifesto that offers plenty of encouragement for those of us involved in adult learning.

Adult learning and the UK election (1): The Conservatives

Lifelong learning has played a much larger part in the 2017 UK election than I’d expected. All of the major parties have spoken about it during the campaign, and all allude to it in their manifestos. In looking at their policies for adult learning, I am going to start with the Conservatives. This is simply because it looks as though they are all but certain to form the next government, and their thinking is therefore rather more important than that of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

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Overall, the Conservative manifesto has two characteristics that strike me as unusual. The first is that it is more centrist than I’d have anticipated, and more open about the role of government in securing well-being and prosperity than the Conservatives have been for some decades. Short of putting Arthur Scargill forward for the House of Lords she seems to have done everything to signal that the Conservatives under her leadership are non-ideological, and if anything represent the Disraeliite tradition of One-Nation Toryism.

The second unusual feature of the manifesto is the lack of practical detail. Almost none of the proposals have been costed, and so we have no idea how they will be funded; and there are very few timetables. This matters in the field of lifelong learning, as the manifesto has a number of interesting ideas in principle, but no indication of how they will be taken forward.

The first group of proposals on lifelong learning come in the section titled ‘A Modern Industrial Strategy’, which essentially carries on where the Government’s consultation over its Green Paper left off. Like the Green Paper, it emphasises that innovation and growth must be nation-wide, with an important role for skills alongside research, infrastructure and productivity growth.

There is to be a National Productivity Investment Fund of £23 billion, but no mention of where this will come from. It will be devoted almost entirely to the supply of skills, infrastructure and research, with no mention of the demand side.

Britain has in recent years used immigration to reduce the costs of skilled labour supply. The manifesto proposes that in future, companies employing migrant workers should pay a levy of £2,000 per worker, which will used to fund higher level skills training. This is potentially significant: some 93,843 Tier 2 skilled work visas were granted in the year ending September 2016, and Brexit is likely to lead to a rise in non-EU migration.

Potentially, then, the Conservatives’ promise looks rather similar in scale and purpose to Train to Gain. Unlike Train to Gain, it looks as though the new scheme will be developed on a UK-wide basis, at least in principle. Whether it is subsequently implemented across the UK or devolved to the four nations (and regionally within England) are good questions, which the manifesto does not answer.

There are also unanswered questions about the future replacement for the European Union structural funds. The new UK ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ is designed to promote the government’s industrial strategy, but with lower administration costs than the Euroean schemes it will replace. As its name implies, the UKSPF is intended to cover the whole UK.

As the UK contributes far more to the structural funds than it receives, in principle the UKSPF should be far more generous, and have a greater impact. But the manifesto does not say how much it will allocate, and all practical and strategic details – including possible differences between the four nations – are to be left until after a post-election process of consultation. Little wonder that the Learning and Work Institute sees this as a prime area for post-election lobbying.

Then there are the proposals for apprenticeships. The manifesto confirms the target of 3 million apprentice places by 2020, which is welcome, but misleadingly claims that these will be for ‘young people’. Pointing out that almost a quarter of last year’s new apprentices were aged 35 or over, and that many are in existing rather than new jobs, Nick Linford has dismissed the Conservative claim as ‘a lie’.

Then there is to be a ‘review’ of funding across tertiary education. The aim of the review will be to offer value for money and ensure that Britons develop ‘the skills we need as a country’. While I’m encouraged that the review will cover further as well as higher education, I don’t know what is meant by ‘different routes’ (part-time? MOOCs?), and there is no clue as to what the government is minded to do, how much a changed system might cost, and how it will be funded – these are just plans for a review. 

Finally, the manifesto sets out Conservative proposals for ‘career learning’. These come in a chapter on education which is rather self-importantly titled The World’s Great Meritocracy. In respect of ‘career learning’, this promises:

  • A ‘new right to request leave for training for all employees’, but does not say how this will be enforced, nor what happens if requests are rejected. If it is simply an extension of existing rights to ask for time off to train, then it is hard to see how it will make any real difference: good employers will implement it, others will ignore it, and the costs of appeal to a tribunal will deter the vast majority from pursuing a rejected claim.
  • A ‘national retraining scheme’ will be established to help workers stay in secure jobs, funded by the state; while the manifesto says that firms will be able to pay employee wages from the apprenticeship levy while they retrain (creating considerable deadweight), it does not say how government will decide which workers are eligible.
  • A ‘right to lifelong learning in digital skills’; again, this is uncosted, and there is no hint as to its scale or how eligibility will be defined. And it is unclear whether this ‘right’ will be implemented across the UK, or solely in England.

Finally, it is worth adding that the ambition is to create nothing less than the best programme of learning and training for people in work and returning to work in the developed world. This impressive aim is not, though, accompanied by any reference to any actually existing programme of learning and training in any other country.

Nor has the manifesto anything to say about the existing adult learning landscape. It simply ignores the contribution of family learning and part-time higher education to social mobility, and says nothing about protecting the current adult skills budget. And – though no one should be surprised by this – its focus is on work-related lifelong learning.

Overall, the Conservative manifesto shows some obvious weaknesses, and is largely silent on detail. Nevertheless, it is more positive about lifelong learning than many of us might have expected, and several of its proposals are heading in the right direction – so much so that if the Conservatives form the next government, we should remind them frequently of their promises.

 

 

Funding adult learners – the case of Singapore

I’ve posted in the past about financial support for adult learners in Germany and in France. These are both fellow large European countries, and there are some interesting lessons for other similar countries like my own. After a brief Twitter exchange with Stephen Evans of the Learning and Work Institute I thought it might be a good time to look at the case of Singapore, a country with a similar population in terms of size (5.6 million) to Scotland or Yorkshire.

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In 2015 Singapore introduced a virtual voucher system, known as SkillsFuture Credit, which forms part of a wider national SkillsFuture strategy for lifelong learning. Open to all national citizens aged over 25, SkillsFuture Credit involves an initial government injection into your account of S$500, followed by periodic top-ups over time.

SkillsFuture Credit pays for courses provided by a range of eligible, largely publicly-funded institutions, including the arts, sports and so-called ‘lifestyle’ courses offered through the state-sponsored People’s Association, and the courses for seniors offered through the National Silver Academy network.

Initially channeled to the citizen to pay fees, from 19 May 2017 SkillsFuture Credit has been disbursed to training providers, with the exception of course fees for overseas MOOCs. This follows a decision to take enforcement action against 4,400 individuals who have reportedly submitted false claims.

Otherwise the system seems to be working well. More than 126,000 Singaporeans used their SkillsFuture credit by the end of the scheme’s inaugural year in 2016. The most popular area for using the credit was information technology, including a large number of older adults who were learning basic IT, often for the first time; second most popular was foreign languages. Some 6% of claims were in respect of MOOCs.

It is probably too early to make any confident claims about Singapore’s system as a model for other countries. The administrative procedures have been revised several times, and taken with the allegations of fake claims this suggests that there have been teething problems. And some will find the range of eligible courses too restricted, with its strong – but far from inclusive – emphasis on skills for innovation.

Yet the scale of take-up is impressively large for a relatively small state, and the financial commitment is admirable. So at the very least, Singapore confirms what can be done by a government determined to promote a culture of lifelong learning.

 

Funding skills in Germany: financial support for adult learners

An article in BildungsSpiegel sets out the different arrangements for financing adult learners in Germany. Although resonsibility for education lies mainly with each of the 16 states, all of these forms of support are available from the federal government.


Education vouchers, issued by the Labour Agency, cover 100% of the costs of participation, including transport, accommodation and food. They are available to those in, seeking, or planning to change jobs. The training must, though, promote return to the labour market, help avoid the risk of redundancy, or enable the learner to take a vocational qualification.

Bonus coupons, part of the educational coupons programme, fund training with a total cost of up to €1,000, of which the programme contributes up to €500. It is available to anyone who is over 25, works for 15 hours a week or more (either in paid work or in a caring role), and earns under €20,000 a year.

Savings coupons, also part of the educational coupons scheme, enable people to withdraw savings from long term accounts before the date allowed in order to fund training.

Career enhancement support, providing loans and grants for longer courses of at least 400 hours of instruction, covering 40% of the course fee and examination fee.

Career development stipendium aimed at skilled workers who scored 1.9 or above in their trade qualification and who want to develop their skills through a first degree. Independent of income, students can receive full-time up to 815 euros. If you study part-time, you receive €2,400 per year.

Continuing education stipendium for skilled employees under 25 to take part in professional continuing vocational training, for example as a specialist, or a transversal qualification, for example a language course. The maximum available is €7,200 over three years, with the stipendium holder ipaying ten per cent of the training itself. Candidates must have shown ‘special achievement’, either in their apprenticeshi or in the job.

WeGebAU, which stands for “Continuing Education for the Low-skilled and Employed Older Workers in Enterprises”, is aimed at unskilled workers or those who have not been in a skilled job for at least four years, as well as employees in small and medium-sized enterprises. In the case of low-qualified persons, the federal government assumes the full training costs if the advanced training leads to a vocational qualification. In the case of older employees, it contributes 75 per cent, provided that the training period falls partly into working hours. In other cases, it promotes further training with a maximum of 50 per cent if the employer pays at least 50 per cent of the costs.

The article does not mention financial support for learners at state level. The 16 Länder interpret their responsibilities for adult learning differently; for example, the laws providing for paid educational leave (Bildungsurlaub) vary considerably by state. Nor does it cover employer support, which can be considerable. And I would add that as well as fundin learners at federal level, provision is also generously funded in most (but not all) of the states. 

From a British perspective, two things are striking. First is that these are federal schemes, operating across the 16 states; most of our funding for adult learners is handled separately by the four nations, and perhaps in future by English regions. I’d be interested to know whether the benefits of a coherent system-wide scheme outweigh the advantages of adapting to local and regional circumstances.

Second is the important role of vouchers to fund adult learners. And voucher based funding is also significant in Austria. How come government in these countries can apparently make vouchers work, while we either abolished them following scandals (as  with ILAsin England) or restricted their use (as with ILAs in Scotland)?